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Policy isn’t about personalities. Or at least, it shouldn’t be

LAST WEEK, I saw a clip from Martin Scorcese’s 2004 film about Howard Hughes, “The Aviator.” I had seen it before. But this time, I had a different reaction when Leonardo DiCaprio, as gazillionaire Hughes, went into a compulsive fit, helplessly repeating:

“Show me all the blueprints. Show me all the blueprints. Show me all the blueprints. SHOW ME ALL THE BLUEPRINTS....”

The first time, I thought, Whoa, that’s messed up. This time, I thought, I can identify....

Over the past weeks I’ve found myself saying something over and over — sounding just like Howard Hughes, only without the money:

“How we should proceed with regard to Iraq should not be determined by our opinion of President Bush. The best course in Iraq is not dependent upon personal regard for the president. Success in Iraq isn’t about Bush. Iraq isn’t about Bush. Iraq’s not about Bush. It’s not about Bush!”

Whether we should give Gen. David Petraeus more time to pursue his strategy that actually seems to be starting to work — whether a cause that Americans have fought and died for for more than four years will lead to a good result — is far more important than what we think or feel toward the guy in the White House.

Compared to this profoundly important strategic decision, it simply doesn’t matter whether you think Mr. Bush lied to you before the invasion (he didn’t) or whether he applied grossly inadequate policies and strategies over the next three years (he did).

Nor is it relevant that you think Dick Cheney must be what Darth Vader looks like without his helmet on (I’m not arguing with you there).

But listen to how every development of the “decision-making” (most of the participants decided a long time ago, of course) process in Washington is expressed. It’s always about Bush.

Democrats are said to be trying to deliver a setback to the president. John McCain is said to be steadfastly loyal to the president’s strategy (despite the fact that the “surge” was closer to his idea all along than to the Bush/Rumsfeld “do it cheap” approach). Dick Lugar is described as breaking with the president.

Folks, the president isn’t the one fighting and sacrificing and bleeding and dying for this cause. It’s some of the bravest young people this nation has ever produced. It’s also a few million ordinary Iraqis who, brave or not, don’t have anyplace else to go.

And as what I said a moment ago about the vice president suggests, not even this “not about Bush” rant I’m on is about Bush. It’s not even about Iraq. It’s more about whether a free people can govern themselves through a system of representative democracy. Not just in Iraq, but right here.

We’re personality-mad, from the people on the tabloids who are famous just for being famous (what is it that Paris Hilton does again?) to deciding which course history will take depending upon who suggested the direction.

Consider one of the most devastating arguments leveled against the late immigration bill — I mean, when critics got tired of saying “Grahamnesty” — Ted Kennedy’s for it. Whoa. OK. Case closed.

(Yes, I realize that, just as with Iraq, many people who rose up against the immigration bill have detailed, point-by-point arguments based on a careful, critical reading of all the available facts. But you know and I know that for some folks, “Teddy” was enough. That’s why we heard it so often.)

Sometimes, of course, a person is the issue. But even then, what’s most important to our society is what that person in the news represents in a larger sense. Thomas Ravenel’s drug problem, as described by his father, is a personal and family tragedy — and none of your or my business. But the indictment of the state treasurer, about whom the voters knew little beyond the fact that he photographed well, points to the serious flaw in our system for determining who’s going to hold our money for us.

It’s up to Tommy Moore whether he wants to be a state senator or work for the payday lending industry. Forget him. What the rest of us should think about is how much longer we’re going to tolerate our Legislature rolling over for special interests instead of acting in behalf of the greater good.

Finally, it’s not about Mark Sanford. Yes, he’s a pain with his ideology-over-reality shtick, up to the point that we endorsed Tommy Moore over him — even though our opinion of then-Sen. Moore was such that none of us was terribly shocked last week.

But when he says we should restructure government to make it accountable, he’s right. When he says you shouldn’t dictate local laws from the state level, he’s right. He’s right about a lot of stuff. But lawmakers take a particular delight in sticking it to Mark Sanford personally. Sure, he gives them cause, but that’s not what they’re there for.

South Carolina isn’t just about Mark Sanford.

I could go on and on about the problems with making political judgments personal, but let’s face a critical fact: Either you get my point by now, or you stopped reading about 20 inches ago because you don’t trust that stupid Brad Warthen anyway. In which case you just proved my point.

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